Chinese Gardens IX (Left and Right; Narrative and Moral)
Chinese landscape painting begins with religion, with the depiction of a Daoist paradise. The continuous echo of this relation, like the persistence of the sound of the ‘sea’ in a shell, in the history of Chinese landscape art is indeed hard to avoid. In terms of the kinds of temporality locatable in the artwork, above all the rhetoric of eternity as a sublime relation, this persistence of paradise comes as no surprise to the Western art lover as the zoning employed resembles that of the sacred symbolism as found in the history of Western Art. Not least in the importance accorded to the top and background. Moreover the path (the Way) in landscape art, the path we follow with our hearts and our souls as with our eyes, is often a slow climbing hypsosis (eye-leading upwards), a zig-zag rising, taking us up to the top (of the painting) and beyond…
But to where do we climb? And by what route? For the direction of movement of time in Western art (most typically in the depiction of narrative western medieval through to Baroque art) prefers left to right, which we can call Left /Right (Narrative); offering the subjective viewpoint, where the point of view of the viewer is paramount, superior even to time, at times, which he or she stands above, seeing time in its many stages, past present and future all at once, before us on the screen. Yet, if the direction of narrative in western art is from (our) left to right (as with our direction of writing) then in the East (China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Burma, Thailand Laos, Cambodia...) the direction of time was (until recently) from right to left, as evinced by the scroll tradition which unfolds from (our) right to left. Unfolding the scroll we follow the line of narrative (as also the direction of reading, first from top to bottom as in before and after in Chinese language, shang/上 to xia/下 , equivalent to above and below, and then from right to left). The route taken then should be from right to left. And the place to which they head? Logically to the top left corner, both in the direction upward and in the right to left narrative direction favoured by the East - including the gaze of the eye of the seated watcher within the image, which also most often (at least in the painting predating the spread of Western influence) traverses right to left and looks upwards.
If narrative directionality in Eastern and Western Art appears to proceed from opposite poles, then the other left/right coding to be found in the image, which gives us the place of the Good and the Holy, and so which we shall call Left/Right (Moral), appears to be the same in both cultures, favouring the (our) top left of the picture corner – often showing itself in the dominance of peaks or heavenly palaces (or, in Western art, the hand or eye of God, as in the Annunciation genre). But why in a right-handed culture (and all cultures are right-handed) should the favoured portion of the picture be on our left?
The answer lies in a one hundred and eighty degree shift in perspective. This second left/right coding, that of Left/Right (Moral), finds its origin the world of the statue, in the three dimensional world of right-handedness. No matter we stand before it, the statue’s right hand is dominant, carries the spear or orb, or scroll. Whence its place on the (our) left of the picture, so going against our -intuitive- sense of the left as lesser or tabooed hand or corner, but occupying the place of the object’s Right (hand). As if we were again before the statue of the entity of power or religion – and so in thrall to their (dominant) sense of left and right. So in art throughout the world, with the exception of places where left and right must bow to the dictates of space (narrative and face-on representations in tunnels leading to somewhere) peaks peak on our left (the image’s right). The eye raising lines of approach culminate in a lofty left of centre peak (this a how, from the point of view of the perceiving subject, the left hand side of the picture is found to be the place of the gods despite the taboo on, or lesser priority of, the left hand side in culture in general – because this position is classified, and experienced, as the image’s, that is the object’s, right). So the right-to-left directionality of narrative fits in naturally with Left/Right (Moral or Object Right) in the East; whilst in the West it sometimes forces a change of narrative direction from left-to-right to right-to-left (where it is God that is moved towards).
With both modalities of left/right in the image in tension with each other. As when the default right-to-left directionality of Eastern narrative is reversed in caves containing a Buddha statue or complex of statuary, so -apparently- following the Western model. However in reality the directionality has been switched to prevent pilgrims and other participants from walking anti-clockwise around the statues, to stop them following-on from the left hand side of the statue (under taboo with left handedness). Instead they must move from left to right, around the statues, that is clockwise, so necessitating the switch in narrative directionality. Clearly the Left/Right (Moral) preference, the gaze of the statues, has priority over the Right/Left (Narrative) directionality, the gaze of the viewer.
Closing image. White glow on blue. The universality of the ‘Windows’ operating system, present on the majority of our computers, and so present on most of our screens. We notice, without any apparent surprise, the light that shines from the top left-hand corner (its rays falling across the screen to the bottom right). A light that shines before and after the running of the other programmes; modest, yet there at the beginning and at the end, a new default, new last word (final vision), featuring Western art history’s favourite diagonal, (our) top left to bottom right, now globalised… a ubiquitous presence on all our private screens.
Copyright 2006, Peter Nesteruk